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Finding new purpose for old churches

Many churches in Nova Scotia have been re-purposed as businesses or homes. CINDY MACDONALD
Many churches in Nova Scotia have been re-purposed as businesses or homes. CINDY MACDONALD - Contributed

Like many of us, I suppose, I hadn’t been inside a church on a Sunday in a long time.

Yet there I was on the weekend, as sunlight filtered through the stained glass and filled the rafters of the old St. Paul’s Anglican Church in the village of Cherry Hill, trying to keep a 43-kilogram dog with a wandering attention span from crashing into the tables of old glassware, the vintage toys and the nautical curios.

Teena Coolen tells me that she hasn’t changed much inside the church since she bought it, price undisclosed, from the Anglican Diocese five years back. “I had to do some repairs, of course,” she explained. “The community couldn’t handle the upkeep; there weren’t enough people going to church and putting money into the collection plate.”

But the pews are still there, the same ones, perhaps, when Donald Conrad became the first baby baptized in the church, which had been built in the late 1800s. So is the altar from which sermons about life and death and everything in between came thundering down onto Anglicans below, and behind which Rhoda Conrad, Mary Lohnes, Maurice Conrad and Stella Forbes at one time or another played the organ.

Some of the people who enter Teena’s Tiques are antique hunters. Some of them are oldtimers from the area. (“It’s a country church,” says the lobster fisherman’s wife. “They used to go here or they were buried or married here.”) Some, I guess, just wonder whether buildings can have spirits, too. And whether there’s still something breathtaking about a House of God when it becomes something else altogether.

Anyone who gets in a car and drives around this province can check this theory out becausechurches, for so long the centre of so many communities, are closing like they’ve never closed before.

There are a variety of reasons for this: ruraldepopulation, along with declining church attendance in the countryside as well as in bigger places.

The good thing is this: Instead of just calling in the demo guys, churches are being transformed using an architectural concept called adaptive reuse, which says it’s OK, sometimes even preferable, to reuse an old structure — whether a schoolhouse, store, factory or church — for some new purpose.

And so we have a church that is a full-time museum in Sydney and one that is a part-time bookstore in Port Maitland.

Churches have been turned into a concert space on Pictou Island, a tea house in Weymouth and an antiques showcase in Great Village.

Instead of choir practice and Sunday school, churches now house all kinds of businesses from selling pet supplies in Windsor Junction to running a karate dojo in Amherst to housing a winery in Newport.

In bigger places, churches have been re-purposed into condo buildings and summer cottages.

But throughout the province lots and lots of churches are now full-year residences like the one that is still a work in progress in Port Mouton for Shelley and Ian Bibby, even though they bought South West Port Mouton Baptist Church 12 years ago.

“We didn’t anticipate all the work that it has been,” says Shelley, who lives in a 160-year-old house in Windsor with her husband and is no stranger to home renovations.

Their church was for the Baptists of Queens County, which meant the interior was unadorned and the pews straight-backed.

But a lot of thought was put into the design of that church, from the proportions to the natural lighting to the tongue and groove panelling which, she says, contributes to the mental state of everyone who inhabits it.

A church, after all, isn’t just a pile of wood and bricks.

Eva Kroger and Tom Foster felt themselves in thepresence of “wonderful spirits” the first time they walked into the Stella Maris Chapel, built in 1846 by Irish soldiers in Ferguson’s Cove.

Now, at the Star of the Sea Bed and Breakfast, they share the vibe.

“We are so honoured every time someone calls and says that they want to stay here because it is their 25th or 50th anniversary and they were married here,” says Kroger. “We are so happy that the church wasn’t torn down.”

Up in Bridgetown, Cindy Mac-Donald, another church owner, counts her blessings, too.

When she bought the town’s Presbyterian church-turned Masonic Temple in 2009, her idea was to convert it into a wedding venue.

Then she took on a business partner and expanded to include a catering business and a bar.

So far so good at Temple on Queen, she tells me.

But that’s not all that’s sweet about owning a re-purposed church.

First opened in 1871, it was bought by the local Masonic Lodge 50 years later, which meant that for half a century only Masons got to see the church’s stunning Gothic revival architecture.

Now, anybody who enters the building sees the spires, columns and pointed arches that inspire a little awe and maybe something else, too.

“It’s been a real (crappy) year for me,” says MacDonald. But inside that old, beautiful building there are times, particularly when alone, that she experiences something that she can only describeas peace.

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